New York Mets' Mike Pelfrey warms up in the first...

New York Mets' Mike Pelfrey warms up in the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the Boston Red Sox. (March 17, 2010) Credit: AP

When Mike Pelfrey takes the mound Friday night at Citi Field, there will be a dozen ways to evaluate his performance, mostly by looking at the scoreboard. Balls and strikes, walks and hits. Pitch velocity. But that doesn't tell the whole story with Pelfrey, whose toughest opponent in recent years often has been himself.

At 6-7, with a whip-like right arm, Pelfrey has the physical tools to be an intimidating presence, a stud No. 1 starter, which is why the Mets made him the ninth pick overall in the 2005 draft. Unlocking that potential, however, has been tricky.

He made strides in 2008, but last season turned into a mental minefield for Pelfrey, whose inner conflict became very public with three balks on that infamous May 17 night at AT & T Park in San Francisco.

As the Mets crumbled around him, Pelfrey leaned on Harvey Dorfman, a sports psychologist revered in baseball circles and consulted by Pelfrey since his days at Wichita State.

Once the season ended, Pelfrey, 26, did more extensive work with Dorfman. He spent two days with him at his home in North Carolina, as many of the game's elite players have done. With Pelfrey, as well as the others, the message never really changes: Just keep it simple.

"At this level, I think every pitcher is pretty gifted," Pelfrey said. "What separates guys is the mental part of the game. Having somebody like that to be able to talk to, and to go over things like that, I think it's huge. Sometimes you need a different voice. It's no BS. If he doesn't like something, he calls you out on it. He doesn't beat around the bush."

Former Met Al Leiter, now a TV analyst for the YES Network, remains a big fan of Dorfman and credits him with essentially saving his career after his second surgery - first elbow, then shoulder - in 1992.

In his early conversations with Dorfman, Leiter blamed the operations for his problems on the mound. That didn't fly with Dorfman.

"He didn't want to hear it," Leiter said during a phone interview. "He told me to stop making excuses for bad outings. Nobody cares. Just get out there and get it done. He's one of the main reasons why I was able to pitch for another 12 years after I got hurt."

Last season, Pelfrey didn't talk about Dorfman very much, especially after the balks, and players can be reluctant to admit to this type of "mental coaching." But this year, Pelfrey seems more comfortable with what he describes as "the process."

Leiter believes that Dorfman is every bit as important as anyone on a team's coaching staff. He recalled the reaction of some - "Oh, he's got a shrink" - during his playing days. But to him, the benefit is obvious. He emphasizes the mental side of a triangle that also includes a "skills and drills" side, which involves work with a pitching coach, and the strength and conditioning side.

It's difficult to achieve success without all of those components, and Dorfman helps with the maintenance of the mind, employing some tough love along the way.

"Quit being a baby," Leiter said. "He simplifies - to the smallest denomination - of what a pitcher's job is, and that's to pitch. The ability to control what you can control. It sounds trite, but it's true. Baseball is not only based on failure but inequity. There's no rhyme or reason to it. Whatever happens, it's over, and then you move on to the next pitch."

Pelfrey showed that type of focus in spring training. Despite a 6.15 ERA, he rarely looked flustered, and his best outing was his last, which came after Pelfrey learned that he had been bumped in the rotation from second to fourth. Pelfrey said the last-minute switch motivated him but that he was not distracted by it - or anything else.

Said Pelfrey: "I think I'm more prepared now than I've ever been."